Episode rating: 2.5/5
Warning: Some clips in this post contain coarse language.
It was the perfect TV storm on paper. And then it aired. And then it wasn’t.
When the NHL (re)announced the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings would play in the next Winter Classic and HBO would reprise its groundbreaking series, 24/7, I fist-pumped. Two Original Six squads, both coming off surprisingly strong playoff showings, both pegged by pundits like us as teams on the rise, both hockey markets, ready to star on the best hockey documentary series ever made? Yes, please. It couldn’t miss. We had stars of the game like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, charming characters like Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul and David Clarkson and quotable coaches in down-to-earth Mike Babcock and blunt Randy Carlyle.
The season premiere aired Saturday and there’s no point sugarcoating it: we hockey people love this series, but season 3, episode 1 was somewhat of snoozer, more so than the eight episodes that preceded it. To understand what went wrong, let’s remember what made 24/7 Penguins/Capitals and 24/7 Flyers/Rangers so good:
1. Memorable characters. Maxime Talbot and Pascal Dupuis are funny. Marc-Andre Fleury is a quirky prankster. Ilya Bryzalov needs no introduction in the sport anymore, and that’s because of the personality he showed on 24/7.
2. Fiery coaches. Bruce Boudreau put the series on the map in season 1, episode 1 with his profanity-laden tirades. Not to be outdone were the calculating Dan Bylsma, the prickly Peter Laviolette (just ask Steve Ott) and John Tortorella, who was yelling at the Rangers not to s— their pants one minute and reaching out to a child in need the next.
3. Music. The tracks in seasons 1 and 2 were great. People rushed to Google the tunes they couldn’t get out of their heads and came up with M83’s Midnight City and Fitz and the Tantrums’ Moneygrabber.
4. Rivalry. Penguins/Capitals was Crosby/Ovechkin and two teams who had played a seven-game playoff war a season and a half prior. The Flyers and Rangers…that one doesn’t even need explaining.
While one episode doesn’t condemn a season, the opener of 24/7 Red Wings/Maple Leafs lacks sparkle because it’s arguably missing all those elements.
1. Is there a single standout character yet? The closest is easily Lupul, who invites the HBO camera to watch him try to heal his groin injury as quickly as possible and, upon returning against L.A., is the best Leaf on the ice. He also gets the best lines of the episode, calling the Kings’ Slava Voynov a “piece of s—” after they fight.
His famously good style and looks are on display and he flashes some charisma by grinning to himself after being sent to the dressing room early. An interesting personality? Sure. But he’s nowhere near the Bryzgalov/Boudreau zone.
And that’s it for exciting characters. We can praise Stephen Weiss for wanting to watch his own highlight reel on the big screen during his return to Florida or Daniel Alfredsson for taking his kids for a skate at Joe Louis arena, but compelling television this ain’t.
2. Babcock and Carlyle disappoint, coming off as fairly easygoing and nice despite the fact their teams are mired in major slumps. Is this not fodder for some furious tirades? Carlyle is harder on a toaster than he is on any player in this episode.
3. No song remains in my head since I watched the episode. I couldn’t hum one note of one track for you.
4. Here’s the hindsight is 20/20 moment. In theory, Toronto/Detroit constitutes a good “rivalry” matchup. But these two teams are in the same division for the first time since 1997-98 and haven’t played each other yet this season despite being scheduled to meet four times. At least the rivalry can gain traction during their first matchup Dec. 21.
The strange thing about the episode is it’s not like it lacks storylines to work with. There’s the aforementioned losing streaks, which in theory could breed drama, but instead seem to elicit wooden responses from many of the players. There’s Jimmy Howard’s knee injury and the brewing goaltending controversy with Jonas Gustvasson – but Gustavsson isn’t even quoted in the episode. Dion Phaneuf is suspended, too, for his hit on Boston’s Kevan Miller, but it gets relatively brief play. Of the incidents highlighted in the episode, only Lupul’s groin injury and subsequent return seem to get the in-depth 24/7 coverage we crave.
That’s not to say this entire installment is a dud. A look at the odds and ends includes moments both amusing and disappointing:
- Of course Todd Bertuzzi is the lone guy we see slamming back a beer.
- Just as Carlyle’s toaster bit feels a bit forced, so does HBO’s attempt to build up Weiss’ return as dramatic. After Weiss high-fives BB&T Center staff and gets his video tribute, narrator
Ross Rhea Ray DonovanLiev Schreiber calls Florida a “hostile” crowd environment. That’s like calling John Scott good at hockey. I checked the attendance for that game and it was 13,358 (69 percent capacity).
- I love Phil Kessel as a dynamically offensive player, but we know he all reminds us of our kid little brother, so it was fitting (and a bit endearing) to see him beating the big kids at ping pong and gloating.
- The Red Wings contingent of Kyle Quincey, Brendan Smith, Darren Helm, Danny DeKeyser and Justin Abdelkader smartly change the subject on camera when someone tries to by them a shot in a Florida restaurant. Maybe they look down their noses at bottom-shelf tequila like Jose Cuervo. Or If they do oblige, it’s when HBO isn’t watching.
- Two seconds of Bozak? That’s it?
1. JOFFREY LUPUL. An easy pick. The most camera time and the grittiest on-ice moments belong to him.
2. JIMMY HOWARD. The usually affable Wings goaltender endures being benched, returning and losing a game, then being injured in the same episode. He takes it in stride and shows a trademark goalie quirk by daydreaming game action with all his gear on, complete with twitching body and flickering eyes, in the dressing room before he takes the ice for a game.
3. DION PHANEUF. With a suspension and Elisha Cuthbert for a wife, Phaneuf could’ve owned this episode, but he did just OK with the camera time he had. He doesn’t come off as overly articulate, but I like the matter-of-fact moment when he tells the camera operator what he’s thinking after learning of his suspension: “How do you think I feel”?
With a fairly forgettable episode in the books, I have one primary concern: what if hockey’s most exhaustively covered team has already reached its media saturation point? It’s not like Pittsburgh, Washington, Philadelphia and New York are sun belt cities with one reporter in the room after a game, but they are not Toronto. For the Leafs, HBO might be just one more camera in an ocean of cameras, and I fear they were sick of talking before the shoot even started.
It’s too early to give up on this season, however. I’m crossing my fingers episode 2 yields more Clarkson and especially Pavel Datsyuk. It blew my mind he didn’t speak once. This is an extremely witty, quotable player who speaks better english than he lets on. The first time I spoke to him, I asked him about Shea Weber. Datsyuk’s response: “Shea Weber. He defenseman. He my nightmare.” Is that not the kind of gold 24/7 needs?
Schreiber’s narration ends, “simply playing through it might well be the most important thing these teams can do.” Maybe that’s what we viewers should do. Play through that first episode and hope for a comeback.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin